Buying the Club

By staff November 1, 2002

When Bobbi and Bill Cairns started looking for a home in Sarasota they didn't begin planning a gourmet kitchen, cathedral ceilings or a master suite. Instead, they studied golf courses, grill rooms, and fitness facilities. In essence, they chose a country club first and only then did they plan the house that would put them close to the lifestyle they wanted.

The Cairns happened to have chosen Lakewood Ranch, but their story is common at dozens of golf and country clubs dotted throughout the Sarasota area. For many families and couples, the built-in social and recreational amenities offered by a golf or country club are the motivating force in choosing their home. "We never sell a house," says Sarasota real estate executive Michael Saunders. "We sell a lifestyle, and for the person who wants a club lifestyle, the club becomes the determining factor in choosing the community. Then they choose the four walls."

With the wide range of clubs available in Sarasota, selecting one involves many factors, among them the club's personality, recreational facilities, cost and location. The clubs, different as they are, have one thing in common: the drive to keep members happy. And members are requesting a lot more these days than a round of golf and a Friday-night dinner party.

Clubs compete fiercely for new members; communities are offering ever larger clubhouses and resort-style services and amenities to attract the discriminating, well-heeled buyer. Newly built clubs as well as older clubs are renovating to meet escalating standards.

"The life cycle of a clubhouse is generally 10 to 20 years," says Gary Kamenicky, general manager of Laurel Oak Country Club. After that, clubhouses need to be renovated to upgrade the interior design and increase square footage. The need for renovation is especially true in Sarasota, says Kamenicky. "More so than I've ever experienced. We have five other clubs within a mile and a half and the majority of our members live outside Laurel Oak, so we have to be competitive." Laurel Oak, which charges $34,650 for its top equity memberships, has just finished a $2.3 million renovation to dress up the ballroom, add space and enhance the golf course. Members voted to pay for these renovations out of their own pockets because they saw the need to remain competitive with other clubs.

Serendipity Racquet Club, outside the gates of the Country Club of Sarasota, is another clubhouse that's modernizing to attract members. Serendipity's renovation traded weary pink and teal for a sophisticated d├ęcor of beiges, wrought iron and cherry wood beams and columns.

Golf is still a draw, of course, but it isn't enough to have 18 holes of golf. According to Frank Vain, president of the McMahon Group in St. Louis, Missouri, which specializes in strategic planning for more than 600 private clubs, "There's more golf availability so it's not the exclusive activity it was. It's more a commodity. Great golf is still at the core of the country club experience but it's not sufficient in and of itself to drive membership." As a result, large developments are adding not just courses but specialized services such as Longboat Key Club's custom club-fitting system and computerized instruction.

Clubs must also offer a panorama of recreational activities. Har-Tru tennis courts-lit at night, of course-are necessities. Pools are grander, with 25-meter, six-lane sizes to attract families and swim teams. The biggest growth area is in health and fitness facilities. A few stationary bikes and treadmills don't cut it anymore. Now clubs offer members massage therapy, cardio-resistance and free weight training and more exotic options.

Spa visits used to be special treats for a vacation or occasional pampering. Now spa services are integrated into daily country club life. "Many families consider the club an extension of their home," says Michael Saunders. "If keeping fit is very important to you, you might choose an incredible fitness facility; it allows you to make better use of your home."

Longboat Key Club offers the sine qua non in fitness locally, pampering members in spa style-literally. Hotel guests use the fitness center, which allows Longboat Key Club to maintain the most extensive full-time spa operations in the area-a real draw for people who want a full range of luxury services. The spa services offered in its new Harbourside clubhouse read like a hedonist's bible. Among the services are therapeutic massage, body scrubs and wraps, yoga, and Pilates classes.

"Our members are looking for spa treatments.aroma body oil wrap, cellulite body mask, raindrop therapy, herbal body polish," says Erin McLeod, corporate communications manager. "We have eight licensed massage therapists on staff and they're busy all the time." Personal trainers are popular because, says McLeod, "members want somebody to create a fitness program just for them and guilt them into showing up each week." A family initiation fee at Longboat Key Club, which includes these spa services, is $30,000.

The tennis-focused Serendipity Racquet Club is in the middle of a three-phase renovation that, among other things, adds a dedicated fitness facility. Serendipity responded directly to member requests. "A few years ago most people were tennis-specific," notes Serendipity's director of tennis Don Caprio. "Now a lot of members want to use a health and fitness facility to cross train and also to promote a healthy individual. It's more multi-dimensional." He adds, "The whole industry is moving toward mind, body and spirit classes. You need more than just aerobics. Working on mind and spirit as well-things such as yoga and tai chi to relieve the stress of the day." Such services not only boost membership at Serendipity, they also encourage resales at the nearby Country Club of Sarasota, where residents can walk or bike to the facility.

Local clubs are changing yet another time-honored tradition. Managers note a distinct trend toward more casual social activities and dining. With more two-income couples, hectic lifestyles and Florida's notorious heat and humidity, members are shying away from traditional jacket-and-tie formal dining.

The Oaks, with its equity membership fee of $42,000-the highest in the area-is proud of its formal dining room, but even that august club bowed to member wishes and bent the dining rules. Members can now go jacket-less on family nights two times a week. The club also enlarged its grill area for casual dining so members can stop in after golf or tennis without having to change. "Formal dining is disappearing, unfortunately, like church; people don't dress up as much," says George Burton, interim general manager.

Dining may be more casual, but clubs are not scrimping on architecture or ambience. The weathered wood styles of the '70s are gone.

Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club set a Sarasota record with 42,000 square feet of new clubhouse, and members are paying up to $30,000 for the "platinum" membership. Tom Danahy, executive vice president and chief operating officer, says that his group "did market research and surveys to discover what upscale buyers want. Affluent buyers like the Italian villa look. Our clubhouse was inspired by the Ringling Museum, so it also has some historical significance to it." Members and guests feel the grandeur from the moment they enter the foyer, with its 35-foot high ceiling, marble circular staircase and Italian art lining the walls.

Clubs are adding and enlarging banquet rooms as well. Lakewood Ranch's banquet space can be sub-divided as required into several different areas. Lisa Rubinstein, director of public relations, considers the space essential. "It's a real turn-off to a member to be turned away because the club is closed for a private event. A banquet facility is a good move." The banquet facility also provides extra space for club social events and special occasions such as weddings. Lakewood Ranch designed a dramatic bride's lounge with a Juliet balcony overlooking the grand foyer and spiral staircase-perfect for photographs, of course.

Families are choosing clubs, too. Kids are now a fact of life at clubs that once would have been bastions of retirees, empty nesters and corporate social life. The age of club members is trending downwards as families discover the benefits. Lakewood Ranch and Laurel Oak report that their average member age is 55. Golf and country clubs offer activities for the entire family with children's tennis and golf camps, and nurseries for the youngest members so moms can enjoy unfettered tennis and golf.

How much more can clubs upgrade and expand? Consider Tom Danahy's response, remembering that his clubhouse is already the largest in town: "We've set aside five acres for future expansion."

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